Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Manual Labour

The virtues of manual labour are not something very often celebrated. Nor are those of its unskilled cousin, menial labour. Why this is the case should not be very hard to figure out. Everyone wants ‘meaningful’ work, which manual labour is not; or is not supposed to be.

Meaningful work is a job that pays well, finds you at a desk, and does not require you to take a shower right after you return home. It engages your mind, let’s your creative juices flow. It finds you in Richard Florida’s creative class, which is at the forefront of the new ‘knowledge economy.’ It may even allow you to be your own boss, set your own hours, pursue your own goals. Meaningful work, in other words, is not the sort of work that most people end up doing. 

So it is commendable that Brian Dijkema has taken up the cause of manual labour in his latest piece ‘The Work of Our Hands.’ The dignity of manual labour, he says, is the conversation we are not having, But we should be. The God who has created all things is the Great Equalizer; he plays no favourites, has no obvious preferences: sees the good in everything and everyone. Building buildings, stocking shelves, pouring coffee, cleaning floors, and preparing food are just as good as running businesses, writing books (and blogs), designing homes, and running country. So far as the Almighty goes, every job is worth doing—though with exceptions, one may suppose, like pimping and high finance.

Dijkema finds himself in good company. The pedigree of his argument goes back at least as far as Martin Luther, who held that some jobs are not better than others on account of the favour they allow you to curry with divinity. It is not better to be a priest and less good to be a day labourer or a tradesperson or a civil magistrate. Each contribute their part of the workings of the community, which allows the whole to thrive. On that account, each are as good as the others.

This, in a short summary, is the Protestant ethic animating what Max Weber called the spirit of capitalism. Through the medieval period, religious authorities believed secular labours as less important than sacred duties in the larger scheme of things. This world has passing away. It's relative means paled in comparison to the heavenly kingdom. But after the Protestant Reformation, all believers were now priests, and all their secular labours, now sacred.

If the religious language is off-putting, consider the same claim in a more secular idiom. Today, when money reigns supreme, we would say that it is not better to be make more money as a professional and less good to be a wage-earner. Everyone's job possesses equal value. Everyone has their part to play. 

So manual labour possesses an intrinsic dignity. It is good work, work worth doing, and so worth doing well. It is worth celebrating. But this is not to say that manual labour cannot still be dehumanizing. We read that the Almighty placed human beings in the pristine garden to cultivate it. We also read that he cursed human beings to toil by the sweat of their brows, after they ate an apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The lesson seems to be that knowledge always comes with the price. If we would ‘master’ the world, we must toil as a consequence.

Dijkema wants us to see the dignity in manual labour, but he warns against forgetting that work is often ‘toilsome.’ The message is one that I heartily applaud. However, Dijkema's antipathy towards a Marxist analysis of class conflict seems to stunt the moral force of his argument. He is able to admit that manual labour can be toilsome, that it can be exploitative, that is can be dehumanizing; he is ultimately not able do say why these things are the case.

Witness: 1) Dijkema claims that manual labour possess an inherent dignity, but can be toilsome (and so without apparent meaning for the labourer).

Witness: 2) Dijkema claims that we often toil among 'thorns'--with appropriate biblical references to the Fall into Sin (Genesis 3) and to the Vanity of Vanities (Ecclesiastes 1).

But witness: 3) what Dijkema leaves out.

Both of these are true, so far as they go. The problem here, it seems to me, is that Dijkema never gets around to explaining why manual labour should possess an inherent dignity, which, by extension, would explain why it can often be so miserable. Dijkema wants us to celebrate manual labour (for God's sake), but never gets around to explaining what is in it for us. 

Is it not simply that labour, including manual labour, is meaningful because it allows us to secure the means for life? Labour puts food on the table, clothes on one's back, and a roof over one's head. The person who does not work, does not eat; or so the old saying goes. Whereas the person who does work is able to eat and (in our capitalist economy) more.

And is this not also the reason for why so much labour can seem meaningless? A lot of what counts as manual labour is menial in every sense of the term: it enables one to live, but hardly to live well. It finds persons going through the same motions, day after day after day. It dissociates the person who toils from the products of their labour, which serve the material interests of others. And that is if they can find a job. 

Now, this is not true across the board. A good number of professions that fall into the category of manual labour are paid quite well. These provide a sense of personal fulfillment and enable persons to live well. And, of course, if you are being paid well, maybe the need for a sense of personal fulfillment is not as high. You can go home at the end of the day and enjoy life with family and friends. 

But it is true in more than enough cases to warrant a skeptical read of a defense of any argument that seems to suggest a person ought to simply 'work-for-the-sake-of-working,' or force meaning of labour because God wants them to. This is disingenuous in the extreme, and forces one to wonder what god, in fact, is being served. If WE talk the talk of meaningful manual labour, then WE also have to walk the walk by paying a living wage for it.

That is the real discussion we should be having. Indeed, if you think that the human being is created in God's image, that is the only discussion you should even consider entertaining. 

I am vain enough to think that, deep down, Dijkema agrees with me. He just needs to let out that little Marxist living in each of us. Then he will be able to talk about the existential distance between what a person is and what a person does; to talk about how far out of sync these have to be in order to claim that persons are dehumanized. 

Also see: Menial Labour

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